I wanted to scoff at Rock Rose at the Domain Northside. It looked like a developer watered a Chia Pet made of glass, steel, neon, stucco and concrete.
It’s like the downtown of a big city — a downtown scrubbed of dirt, history and verve. And blessed with free parking. Otherwise, it’s all there: bars, spas, fitness studios, street art, salons and restaurants. All tightly packed on a few blocks like a row of hard candy boxes in a pharmacy.
It’s more like a shopping mall installation of a downtown than an actual downtown. But I guess you have to start somewhere. Such are the things we must overlook, or at least tolerate, to satisfy the hunger for entertainment in a rapidly growing city.
But, here’s where I check my condescension at the door. While there are some out-of-town brands planting flags at Rock Rose, the development has done admirable work in curating a roster of tenants that actually captures the spirit of modern Austin.
For a complex trying to blow the Keep Austin Weird trumpet, selecting a tenant like Thai Kun was the right move. And letting it (and the other tenants) speak for itself, with its aggressively colorful branding and signage, was also a smart move. You don’t hire Shakey Graves to play your office Christmas party and then tell him not to drink, cuss and stomp.
Chef Thai Changthong started Thai Kun as a spinoff truck under the East Side King umbrella popped by chefs Paul Qui and Moto Utsunomiya. The truck proved to be more than just a kid brother in the ESK family, with Changthong standing out with his aggressive Thai flavors.
The chef, who worked with Qui at Uchi and Uchiko and also ran the kitchen with Ek Timrerk at the sadly short-lived Spin Modern Thai, once told me that he was hard-headed. He cooks the food he grew up with, so while Thai Kun may be located in an open-air mall, he’s not serving a Gap version of Thai food.
“I don’t know how to twist it to American style,” Changthong said.
He and Qui have called it “O.G. Thai,” which they joked meant “Original Grandma.” And this grandma isn’t the kind to overindulge you with sweetness.
That becomes clear the second you envelop yourself in the warmth of tender hunks of beef fragrant with the aromatics of a stinging panang curry ($13). The dish did what so many at Thai Kun do: It finds balance. While there is heat, there is also the cool of kaffir lime leaf, basil and coconut cream.
The sweet and spicy do their dance on fried chicken wings ($7) that, like the curry, make appearances at lunch and dinner. Unlike other wings that run too salty or too sweet, their meat dried beneath leathery skin, this tamarind-lacquered version brightened by green onion, celery and cilantro hit all the right notes, and the meat stayed juicy, redeeming for me a dish that I was about ready to push off to sea in a paper boat.
Part of Thai Kun’s excellence comes in taking those dishes that seem simple, like wings, and giving them a depth and care that sets them apart. Kao man gai ($11) isn’t rocket science, but finding balance between the poached chicken and the aromatic fat used in making the rice is certainly a craft.
The panang curry and kao man gai are two of the few dishes that lovers of the original Thai Kun trailer will recognize on the menu at this restaurant that offers counter-service in the daytime before moving to a full-service experience in the evening staffed by very knowledgeable servers.
Some diners might be interested in hearing how viscous, salty oyster sauce is integrated into a crunchy Chinese broccoli dish ($9), but many will largely rely on the guidance to navigate spice levels on the menu.
Pad kra pow at lunch ($11) has quite the kick, even though yellow onion and serrano pepper don’t seem to pose much threat, and even something as tame as a dinner dish of crab fried rice ($16) — which had a nice, toasty taste even if it desperately wanted for more lump crab meat — could reach water-grabbing heights if you ladled enough of the accompanying salty, sour and spicy sauce.
But there is only one way to moderate the heat of papaya salad ($7). Tread lightly. Strand by strand. Sure, it sounds sweet and innocent enough. That kind of thinking will get you hurt. Tangy fish sauce and citrus slick and enliven strands of crunchy green papaya, but when that tingle wears off, the alarm bells start ringing. The heat never quite sets in. It just blazes across your tongue, up into your eyes and soon-to-be-runny nose. Changthong is not playing. Or pandering.
The dish will challenge even spice seekers and send those with sensitive palates flailing for the relief of an excellent Bangkok Bang ($6) sake cocktail with orange, vermouth and bitters, or pleading to skip ahead to the smooth pana cotta with basil ice cream at dessert ($7).
My dining mates’ reactions made me wonder how the meal went for an alarmed diner I heard about who begged for a glass of milk, only to be told with bemusement that he hadn’t even ordered one of their spicy dishes.
Maybe he should have stuck to dishes like a giant fried whole grouper ($28), its crackling skin scored nicely to make for easy plucking of the meaty fish, or the sliced grilled ribeye ($28) made supple with fat and served with the spice-and-salve of nam jim jaew dipping sauce and a bounty of cabbage, cilantro and basil.
Those two items came from the “family style” section of a dinner menu that also offers Northern Thai dishes advertised as the “most authentic dishes offered” at Thai Kun.
Think pork. And sticky rice. Like fermented sausage ($8) or a larb ($15) dish of ground pork, warmed with the primal iron of pig’s blood and topped with a generous dusting of toasted rice powder. Pull a hunk of the elastic rice from its bag, make a sticky pouch and trap the meat, cabbage and herbs for a fragrant and traditional dish in an untraditional setting.
As we left our dinner, wonderfully nonplussed by homecooking found in a complex nobody would describe as homey, I watched folks trickle into the concrete valley of bars and restaurants. People dressed for a cocktail party wandering into a shopping mall.
I muffled a snicker as I walked back to the parking garage. Hey, at least it wasn’t a scoff.
11601 Rock Rose Avenue, Suite 10. 512-719-3332, thaikun.com
Rating: 8 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Open Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Prices: Lunch: appetizers, $5-$8; entrees, $9-$13. Dinner: appetizers, $5-$9; entrees, $8-$28.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Finding Thai Kun at the Domain Northside is weird. And that’s good.
Notes: Free parking in nearby garage. Thai Kun also operates a trailer at Whisler’s bar (1816 E. Sixth St.), open daily from 4 p.m until very late.